Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Praying as the Spigot Turns to Drip

It’s muggy this afternoon, but under the circumstances even that is welcome.  It rained a bit today, briefly interrupting our deepening drought. August has thus far kindly mitigated the thirst with cooler temperatures since July's withering heat, but the earth cracks remain. I compensate in the garden with irrigation – the drip tapes delivering relief directly to the gasping roots – but it’s an imperfect solution. Expensive in the short term, in the long view it is sure to be less and less sustainable as water becomes increasingly precious. 

While it was a nagging concern over declining energy that prodded our determination to join the circle of those who remember how to grow food on different, simpler terms – disentangled from a reliance on the chemicals and combustibles derived from fossil fuels – concern for water is likely to become the more pressing urgency. “Capital” that we routinely treat as “profit” as one economist characterizes our use of such resources.. 

It’s hard to say if we have already entered the reality that ethno-botanist Gary Nabhan anticipates in his book, “Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land – Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty”, but it is hard to ignore the increasing weirdness of weather patterns. In Iowa, where a reputation for bitterly cold and snowy winters was once well deserved, that season between autumn and spring is harder and harder to predict or characterize. Recent years have seen us warmer and drier, with only brief and episodic thermal plunges. And “summer”, any more, equally defies definition. It rains, but only whimsically - a toying drizzle one day; a brutalizing downpour several weeks later. And nothing for days on end.

Don Henley, co-founder of “The Eagles”, names it rightly when he sings:

“We hardly had a winter
Had about a week of spring
Crops are burned-up in the fields
There’s a blanket of dust on everything
The weatherman is sayin’
That there ain’t no change in sight
Lord, I’ve never been a prayin’ man
But I’m sayin’ one tonight
I’m prayin’ for rain
I’m prayin’ for rain
Lord, I ain’t never asked for much
And I don’t mean to complain
I’m prayin’ for rain.”

But it’s his next verse that may be the most prescient:

“I ain’t no wise man
But I’m no fool
I believe that Mother Nature
Has taken us to school
Maybe we just took too much
Or put too little back
It isn’t knowledge
It’s humility we lack.”

Indeed. Ours is not a culture that puts much stock in humility. We beat our scientific chests and reassure ourselves that we will find yet another means for conquering "Mother Nature."  Meanwhile, the leaves curl and the soil first cracks and then blows away. 

But it rained today, at least briefly. I can leave the hydrant in the “off” position for now. And the forecast includes a continuing chance tomorrow. If it comes I’ll not take it for granted. The rain barrels are running low; and the new plant babies, though more quietly than their human counterparts, cry from thirst.

“Lord, I ain’t never asked for much
And I don’t mean to complain
I’m prayin’ for rain.”

Monday, August 7, 2017

Something New to Chew On

"Never be so focused on what you're looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find."
 -----Ann Patchett
 I've never noticed it before.  If it has plagued our garden in previous years I didn't see it -- or I was consumed with different, more urgent concerns.  We've been transitioning our system this growing season, resulting in the movement of a lot of dirt and, very likely, weed seeds which could account for the emergence.  One of these new sections has been particularly afflicted.  I can run the wheel hoe through the walking spaces and between the plants one day, clearing the overgrowth, and by morning the ground is covered again as if I had been absent a week.  Blast this low-growing, oddly attractive, curiously prolific succulent.

Yesterday an acquaintance who operates a certified organic vegetable farm came over to perform my annual inspection to renew my Certified Naturally Grown designation for garden and chickens.  Passing through the garden gate I pointed out this spidery green nemesis, muttered a few profanities by way of description, and asked if he had any idea what it is.  His lips curling into a knowing, sympathetic smile, he uttered a single word:  "purslane."

I had heard of purslane, and been curious about it, but obviously had no idea what it was.  The internet offers plenty of pictures, of course, but scale is difficult for me to assess in such photos, and I'm left never really sure of what I'm looking for.  The mystery, however, is now solved.  My inspector friend went on to tell me that most other cultures value the plant's culinary and nutritional assets.  We, on the other hand, cavalierly label it a weed and hoe it away.  Together we plucked some leaves and sampled some of this aspirational supper.  "Not bad," I thought as I considered the possibilities.

Later, having chewed a few more leaves, we researched for more understanding.  Nature, I am continually learning, abhors bare ground.  Bare ground rapidly loses moisture.  Bare ground blows away.  So it is that Nature finds ways to cover it.  Quickly.  Enter:  purslane.   But Nature isn't the plant's only admirer.  Purslane, it turns out, is a wonder inside the home as well.  Indeed enjoyed around the world, some believe the plant originated in Persia and India.  Italians have have included it in their favorite recipes since the 1200's.  Sporting higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids than many fish oils, impressive levels of fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, B-family vitamins, iron, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, anti-oxidents and carotenoids, this pesky yet delicious little weed can reduce "bad" cholesterol, reduce cardiovascular disease, assist in weight loss, prevent certain cancers, boost vision, strengthen the immune system, build strong bones and improve circulation.  Where has this stuff been all my life?

In her book, The Wild Wisdom of Weeds, Katrina Blair delivers kitchen recipes for Purslane Sauerkraut, Walnut Purslane Coleslaw, Purslane Peach Pie, Purslane Lime Sorbet and Purslane Gazpacho among others.  Hygienically, she walks readers through the steps to Purslane Lemon Elixer, Purslane Shampoo and Purslane Lotion.

I'll have to admit that, while I'm becoming more and more adventurous in the kitchen, I'm skeptical as to how many of those are going to show up in our repertoire.  Nonetheless, I'm excited to try something new -- ancient, that is, but new.  Happy, as well, to approach my weeding with a kinder, more benevolent view.

It couldn't hurt to approach a few other things in my world with those clearer, more informed eyes as well -- wondering what other "purslanes" might be out there in the neighborhood, in the communities through which I pass, in the various immigrant communities to which we all belong; things and people who look, for all the world, like weeds but could just save our lives.

It's something to chew on.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Assertive Bloom of Grace

A rogue cherry tomato plant is sporting fruit in the midst of the beets.  Another is peaking through the wildflower bed that replaced the compost pile.  Last year a zucchini plant surprised us, flourishing in that very pile.

And then there are the sunflowers.

We planted several sunflower seeds around the property this spring, but so far as I can assess nothing has come from them.  Perhaps they lacked moisture when it was most critical.  Or perhaps they were crowded and smothered by competing growth.  I certainly could have been more attentive to their needs, cultivating and coddling and coaxing.   All I can say with certainty is that those chosen locations are silent and void. 

But we have sunflowers.  Towering up between the cabbages and tomatoes are a handful of volunteers that took it upon themselves to grow where their last-season ancestors dropped their seeds.  Never mind the intervening tiller and hoe; never mind the crowding, otherwise-assigned real estate of the garden, it was quite apparently in their interest to grow.  And now, as July dissolves into August, they tower over the garden rows as sentinel observers – whether with welcome or warning I cannot say. 

A more fastidious gardener would have yanked them long ago as intrusions in the orderliness of the plantings.  But I rather like them there – random acts of nature’s kindness – contributing beauty, to be sure, and whimsical novelty; but also because of their silent but stately reminder that I am not finally in control of this soil.  There are underworkings of which I am completely unaware – silent and minuscule machinations beneath the surface that, yes, sometimes produce weeds and other invasives against which I will wage horticultural battle; but also, from time to time, and in always surprising places, the very towering blossom of…


Though I haven’t adequately rehearsed the discipline, this garden experience prompts me to survey the corners and rows of the other parts of my life; suspecting the very real likelihood that unexpected graces could well be showing their faces there, too – among the grocery store aisles or the freeway lanes or the pedestrian steps of the sidewalk…

…nudging and elbowing their way into bloom; parading their colors to any with the eyes to see; preparing, in the coming weeks, to scatter their seeds for yet future surprises; next year’s garden plan be damned.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Neglected Woods Where God Surely Dwells

”When God practices Shabbat, God takes complete delight in what is made. Delight marks the moment when we find whatever is in our presence so lovely and so good that there is no other place we want to be. All we want to do is soak it up, be fully present to it and cherish the goodness of the world God has made.”
------Norman Wirzba, in Making Peace with the Land
The back half of our property is blanketed in woods. The view of it from across the prairie presents tall trees against the horizon, but the few times we have ventured into the thicket we have encountered mostly scrub. A narrow creek interestingly cuts through it, but between the brush and near constant muddiness, reaching its embankment isn't easy. It would take a bulldozer to make much use of it -- an undertaking and expense for which we haven't identified much purpose. The deer take delight in its shelter -- and no doubt other creatures -- but we have happily confined ourselves to the cleared and more accessible acres nearer at hand. Apart from its recent tax designation as “timber reserve” which will save us a few dollars, that portion of the land to which we hold title has been relatively useless. Unfamiliar.  Slightly mysterious, and prickly.  As far as we have been concerned, worthless.

This morning in church we heard again the story of the Hebrew patriarch Jacob’s flight from his angry brother, the dream-filled night that occurred along the way with its angel-trafficked ladder, and the protagonist's morning realization that, “surely the Lord is in this place; and I didn't know it” (Genesis 28:19).

Whatever else Jacob might have been acknowledging, there is the implied observational confession that the problem before had not been with the “place”, but with his own ignorance. I don't understand why we despise what we do not know or understand, but that seems to be our human default. Neither can I comprehend why the fearful prejudices born of that ignorance are only incrementally dismantled. “I’ve come to like and respect you, but you aren't like the rest of your kind.” It's an odd compartmentalization, and sadly wasteful of each other.

Each other, and more.  He probably didn't intend it, but the preacher got me thinking, among other things, about those wooded acres and my base assessment of them; and how Jacob’s problem is actually my own. The deficiency isn't with that “place”, but with my ignorance of it. Against my noblest intentions I’ve fallen into the trap of assessing value according to utility -- what it's good for -- rather than what it simply is: one precious part, along with me, of this wondrously divine creation.

…A creation that will surely heave an epic sigh of relief when we finally comprehend how far it is above our pay grade to name or assess where God might be. 

“Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it.” 

This place.  
These people.  
These moments.

It all gives me the urge to step into my boots and hike in amongst those trees and along that creek -- to get better acquainted with it and the God who is surely full back there, treasuring every square inch of it, never mind the mud, the prickly branches, or the muggy heat.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Inspiration and Challenge of Vacant Rows

I’ve always been fascinated by second acts – people who intentionally or serendipitously reinvented themselves for a subsequent chapter of their life.  I think of people like Ina Garten who was working as a nuclear budget analyst in the White House when she bought a small food store in Westhampton Beach, NY called “The Barefoot Contessa” – the moniker by which she has ever since been known through her television cooking shows and string of published cookbooks.

I think of JK Rowling who started out adulthood as a researcher, later taught English as a second language in Portugal, eventually becoming a single mom on welfare when she began to write stories of a young wizard orphan boy named Harry Potter.

There are politicians, like John Glenn who first orbited the earth as an astronaut and later walked the halls of the Senate chambers. Like Elizabeth Warren who was an elementary school teacher before she went to law school, practiced law out of her home, and after a few more turns was elected to the United States Senate.  And like Ronald Reagan who was a radio sports broadcaster before becoming a film actor and ultimately President of the United States.

There are business types, like Jeff Bezos who had a computer science career on Wall Street before launching Amazon.

There are star athletes who reinvent themselves, like OJ Simpson…. OK, maybe he’s not the best example.

And there are ordinary types like Clara Peller who was a manicurist in Chicago when she was hired as a temporary manicurist for a television commercial.  One thing led to another and, after starring in a Wendy’s Hamburger commercial asking the famous question, “Where’s the beef?”, went on to enjoy a second career as a character actor.

Second acts.  Explosive second careers.  Loving second marriages.  “Re-wirements”, as a friend of mine once put it, instead of “retirements”.  Putting oneself first to one use and then another.  Less, "and finally;" more, "and then."  Perhaps something like a preacher becoming a farmer.

Perhaps something like the garlic rows in the garden.  Planted last October in a 12-row section in one zone of the garden and an 8-row “spillover” in another zone of the garden, we harvested the mature bulbs this week.  It’s a satisfying feeling, after all these months, to finally dig and pull and bundle all those aromatically bulbous stalks onto the empty shelves of the greenhouse to cure for storage.  But it leaves a big vacancy in the garden – a mere half-way through the season.

We could, of course, start to coast.  We could simply retire those sections until next year.  After all, there is plenty growing in the other reaches of the garden.  We have more than enough to do with what remains – weeding and watering, watching for bugs or diseases, gathering into the kitchen a thing or two as they ripen.  And we have other interests and projects to occupy our time and imaginations.  But leaving those spaces fallow seems like missed opportunity.  There is still time before late autumn frosts.  There is yet fertility in the soil.  There are storage crops we would later appreciate.  I ponder the question of stewardship and how we responsibly use ourselves and our resources.

And I’m haunted by the sound of Clara Peller’s voice, asking over the image of that vast and empty bun, “where’s the beef?”; knowing that ultimately she’s not talking about hamburgers at all.

And so we planted seeds in those vacant rows – beets and carrots, turnips and parsnips, fall cauliflower – and already salivate with the anticipation of a subsequent harvest.

A second act.

And wonder about seeds and empty rows of other and different and more significant sorts.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Carrots and Marrow and Tasting the Deliberate Life

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.  ...I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience..."
                                ----Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Very shortly after moving to this farmstead we named it, for reasons as inscrutable then as now, "Taproot Garden."  I don't know from where the name came.  I wasn't even aware of the need to select a name.  When one brings home a dog, a name becomes a pressing imperative; but never before had I considered a name for a new home.  Nevertheless, the boxes were scarcely unpacked and the pictures hung on the walls before the name had emerged, we had commissioned a graphic designer to create a logo, and not too long after taking possession of the finished art that we contracted with a sign maker for the entrance.  The name, it seemed, had chosen us.

In some small way like Thoreau before us, we had gone to the land because we, too, wished to live deliberately and deeply.  I don't think we anticipated a lot of marrow sucking, but we were indeed intent on drawing from the wisdom of life's core.  If a taproot reaches down into the depths of the soil to more solidly anchor whatever stems and leafs and fruits above, and to gather richer, more remote nutrition, then a taproot was precisely what we were after.  Our move felt and continues to feel like one that brings the marrow of life closer to hand.

This is not to suggest that my prior vocational endeavor was artificial or fruitless.  I am forever grateful for the calling, for the evocative mentors who helped discern it with me, for the grandeur of its purpose and imagination, and for the people into whose proximity it drew me.  But something about the execution of it always chaffed -- the machinations, the protocols, the institutional expectations and obligations both implied and stated.  Like the teeth of transmission gears that never quite meshed, the operational and the vocational aspects of the work never quite found in me their rhythm. 

This, of course, says far more about me than about the work.  I have no real idea how the work should be done; I only know how I did it.  To be sure, there were peers and role models that I watched and variously celebrated and derided.  But I don't truly know what it was like for them.  A wise teacher once noted that we are always comparing the "outside" of others with the "inside" of ourselves, and it's never a fair or accurate comparison. 

All that, plus a certain inexorability about it.  I recall a comment my brother made after returning with his family from the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Describing the incredible density of the crowd he observed that you could almost pick up your feet and the crowd would carry you where it wanted you to go.  My prior work had an element of that.  For all its flexibility, it had a way of carrying me along in the directions it wanted me to go, and always swept along I never quite felt capable of reconnecting with the pavement and initiating an alternative direction of my own within it.

Stepping, then, outside of it, we settled on the land....deliberately...to "front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach."  I wouldn't assert that it is the only way to do it -- resettling onto a piece of land -- but I suspect it's harder the further away from it we move. 

Once grounded and home, we began to send down the taproot that this stretch of soil invited.

And we have been anchoring and learning.  This morning I weeded a few garden rows, nestled into the soil a few dozen transplants from the greenhouse, harvested several more cucumbers, a pepper, along with the first of the garlic and the squash.  Later this afternoon I'll gather a dozen or so eggs.   

And pull some carrots -- taproots. Then, with every sweet and crunching bite I will savor the earthy richness of the minerals and micro-nutrients drawn up from the deep, and consider how the same has been happening in me. 

And gratefully resolve to continue Thoreau's deliberate deeper growth and experiential learning...

...tasting the marrow as I come to it.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Breathtaking Chorus of Our Respective Voices

"The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge."
----John Muir
 By this time 6 years ago Lori and I had abandoned a quixotic quest for one rural property and, on the rebound, visited two others.  We felt utterly no connection with one of those, but the other one lingered in our souls like a song you can't get out of your head.  Still, we retreated; hesitant to jump at one pretty place just because we had been denied another.  We thought about other things.  We talked about the weather.  Eventually we called the realtor and initiated a second look which led to an offer which led to a counter-offer and a counter to the counter...and signatures on a purchase agreement.  Two months later we were arranging furniture, unpacking boxes, and nervously, almost wordlessly wondering what in the world we had done.  The ten rural acres that, in the coming months, would be named Taproot Garden was ours. 

At least the legal documents on file at the courthouse attest to that premise. 

But the very first time we walked around the property after making it our home we couldn't shake the recognition that that description was more technical than real.  It was an insight only deepened during the subsequent winter when, with little else to do, I picked up the property's abstract and read the story of this land.  Acquired in the 1800's by the U.S. Government through a treaty with the resident Native Americans,  this parcel has variously welcomed and endured numerous settlers -- "owners" -- who have come and gone, bought and sold, cleared and planted.  Whatever we do while settled here, and however long we stay, our fingerprints will quickly dissolve into the smear of those left here previously amidst the land's ongoing story.

It's not that our presence here is immaterial.  We have cut trees; we have planted others.  We have planted prairie grasses and wildflower seeds.  We have plowed ground.  But it's hard to assert much of a case for primacy.  Regardless of how many thistles we dig out, countless others find their way up and out of the soil in spite of us.  Regardless of how much we clear away the growth around the fruit trees, by the time we turn our backs to walk back into the house its re-encroachment is already under way. 

Who, then, is the most significant player on this precious parcel of ground?  Who really "owns" this land?  Is it us with our deeds and abstracts and power saws and earth augers and tillers and hoes and irrigation systems?  Is it the deer who routinely traverse the property indifferent to our presence?  Is it the dandelions loosening the packed soil? Is it the bees hived just before the treeline who pollinate the flowers and the trees?  Is it the earthworms beneath the surface or the trees standing watch around the edges?  Is it the birds who overfly, or the garden snakes who do their part? 

Or is the very question, as Muir hints in the opening quotation, an absurdity in its assumption of any hierarchy at all?  Is it arrogance or is it insecurity  -- or an even more destructive ignorance -- that leads humans, completely alone among all these other players and the literally billions of others, to posit such a dwarfing stupidity as superiority? 

I only know this:  when I see the squash vine blackened and withered, despite my most valiant efforts, by a squash bug; or when I see a ripening plum on a branch where only months ago was but a naked branch; or when I pinch a young cucumber off the vine after I had simply dug a hole and dropped a seed...

...I can do little more than note the swelling gratitude that overtakes me for the privilege of participating, in these few tiny ways, in the immense wonder of it all.  Along with the bees and the worms and the butterflies and blossoms; with the seeds and the fruits and the sun and the rain; with the innumerable microscopic factors and fungi at once inhabiting and nourishing the soil, we make a pretty good chorus.  All of us -- each of us -- simply singing our part.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Fireworks-- and Hope -- in a Jar

Walking back toward the house after securing the chickens for the night, the young darkness is alive – electrified with the twinkling of fireflies.  It happens every night this time of year – especially dramatic in the tall rough grass around the front trees, as if the stars in the sky had condescended to kneel down to human scale affording us earth-bound ones a better view.  Those with a quick hand and a childlike sense of wonder can capture one and contain the lightening in a jar, but either because I've grown older or slower (I pray it's merely the latter) I content myself with watching; marveling at the magic just outside our door.

I suppose there are fireflies in the city, but I rarely saw them in all of our years there.   Perhaps it was that all the street lights and porch lights and headlights around camouflaged them hiding in plain sight.  Or perhaps I was too busy to pay them any mind – or once parked inside and the garage door motored down behind me I never reemerged until morning.  We miss things, I know, wherever we are.  Out here in the rural recesses -- absent cable, satellite TV, pavement and street lights -- I'm sure we miss plenty. 

But not the fireflies. Fireflies we see.  And it's something close to magic.

After several decades of illegality, and amidst great controversy, the Governor signed a bill this spring, passed by the legislature, legalizing the sale of fireworks in Iowa.  Curiously, the new law allows municipalities to ban the USE of such explosives, but not their SALE; making me wonder whose interests the new law is intended to serve.  But I digress.  The result of it all will almost surely be that the afternoons this 4th of July weekend will be crackling with strings of Black Cats reaching the ends of their fuses, and the nights with fizzing sparklers and the bursts of Roman candles and bottle rockets.

It seems to me that it would have been a lot simpler – and cheaper and quieter – to just encourage everyone to drive down a country road, park near a field, turn off the headlights, and watch nature’s own fireworks display. 

And I do encourage it.  You might find yourself spontaneously humming softly about “rockets red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.”

You might even find yourself trying to catch one in a jar…

…giggling, pretending, if only for the evening, that we are all children. 

But even if only for the evening, who knows where it could lead?

Just imagine. 

Friday, June 30, 2017

All of Us, Somewhere Along the Way

Standing over a weed-infested row, nudging along the blade of a hoe, I pause to consider the progress -- my own with the weeds, and also that of the vegetable starts I'm tending.  I naively and ambitiously agreed to furnish vegetables for a restaurant dinner later in the summer, but I have so far resisted providing a tentative inventory of what the chef might reasonably expect from our garden.  I know what we have planted, and I observe what seems to be thriving.  But I'm still a horticultural neophyte.  I have yet to evolve that intuitive inner calendar that simply knows when things are due.  Moreover,  I have so far procrastinated on developing the good and helpful habit of maintaining annual garden notes, which means I don't have the benefit of our prior years' experience beyond simple anecdotal memory; and that doesn't feel like much to bank on.  Never strong enough to lean on, my recollections are only getting fuzzier.  And while, yes, I can read the seed packets for their statistical predictions and norms, that, too, has its limitations.

Growth, after all, is a mysteriously mercurial thing.  The copywriter who added those cultivation notes to the catalog and seed packet -- presumably drawing on rich and deep expertise -- nonetheless doesn't live on our property, doesn't dig in our soil, and may or may not water at the same rate as I do.  And even if I had kept growing notes from previous seasons, I have learned the hard way that seasons rarely Xerox themselves for later use.  Each one is its own work of art with its own brush strokes and hues.  What lagged behind last year may well sprint ahead in this present season.  The bugs that haunted last season may be absent altogether this year...or simply late.  There are, in other words, variables.

All that, plus the fact that plants are living things with their own strengths and idiosyncrasies.  Standing over an adolescent vine prognosticating about its progeny feels about as predictive as speculating on the future career of an 8th grader.  Or, for that matter, a 55-year-old.  We change, after all.  Or flame out.  Or catch a different spark.  Or...  Who knows in advance exactly what will grow?  Or when it might mature?

I'm liking the looks of the radicchio, but having never grown it before I have no clear guess about any harvest.  The garlic and the wheat are soon to come out, but the cabbages are a long way off.  I see blossoms on the squashes and green beans, but whose to say how many and by what date?  The braising greens we can count on, but a meal requires more than kale and collards and chard; and there is little hope that the peppers and tomatoes will be there to play a supporting role.  Cucumbers?  Probably, but we'll see.  Even if I'm not quite sure what it will be, something good will show up in the kitchen in ample time to serve.

It's all a work in progress.  Just like the rest of us.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Brief But Tender Mercy

We are still baffled about its arrival.  Driving home from a brief weekend away, our house sitter called with a conundrum.  There was a baby chick in our chicken coop.  “What,” she wondered, “should she do?”

To those only superficially acquainted with Taproot Garden, let me clarify that while we do have chickens – 30 or so heritage breed hens at any given time, plus one unanticipated rooster we began calling “Sam” after “Samantha” ceased to be appropriate – we have no chicks.  I've never been interested in that particular facet of flock keeping; preferring instead to acquire our stock as juveniles who are somewhat further along the arc of growth. A chick in the coop, then, was an anomaly.  

The fact remains, however, that we do have that rooster – a presence that comes, shall we say, with alternate potentialities.  

We hurried the last few miles home and scurried out to the coop.  Sure enough, there was a chick chirping enough to wake the neighbors and bouncing around like a  dog toy.  Setting aside for a moment our disbelief, we noted that however it had gotten here it seemed to have no access to the available food and water.  Scooping it up, we prepared for it a temporary home in a box with some bedding and a lidding screen.  A quick trip to the farm store afforded chick food and a waterer suitable for its size.  Only then did we give our curiosity full throttle.

Could a fertilized egg have been laid and subsequently hidden for the requisite 21 days and hatched under the care of brooding hens?  It hardly seemed possible.  I am fastidious in the collection of eggs and tending to the coops.  I'm far from perfect, but I think I would have noticed.  Alternatively, could someone be playing a prank?  Could someone have surreptitiously crept into the chicken yard and deposited this fluffy ball?  That seemed even less likely.  A gift from outer space?  Mork in feathered form?  

Disseminated pictures and strategic queries eventually led to the conclusion that the chick was not a chick at all, but a poult—a baby turkey; an explanation lent credibility by our recent sightings of a wild turkey on our property in recent days.  However it came to be orphaned, and however it came to make its way inside the coop, the poult at least had an identity and a story.

What it didn't yet have was a way forward.  We hadn't wakened that morning – or any other morning to date – with the aspiration to raise a turkey,  and even if the idea pricked some hypothetical nerve of appeal we didn't know the first thing about how to go about it.  For good or ill, however, we had it and it had us, together entangled in that sticky web of cuteness, circumstantial imperative, and I suppose basic nature.  Whatever had caused the mother turkey to abandon her young, it simply isn't in our DNA to do the same.  So it was the we found ourselves reading what we could about turkey care,  exploring options for food and shelter, saving for college.  

I’m kidding about the college.  But just barely.

I still don't understand it.  We didn't want it; had no interest in such things.  But we had it, and had come to care about it.  We had hopes for it.  And so this morning, a mere two days in to this imposed surrogacy, when we found its lifelessly still little body nestled in the straw we felt somehow bereft.  The unclaimed had laid claim on our imaginations, our anticipations and our ever mercurial tendernesses.  

We constantly find ourselves reminding each other that we live in the midst of nature, not Disneyland.  Real things happen here.   Rabbits eat the greens.  Squash bugs decimate the harvest.  Blight withers the tomatoes.  Foxes jump the chicken fences.  We have become well enough acquainted with death that I now can gather up a lifeless chicken without weeping and feeling as violated as if a thief had broken in and rummaged through the drawers.  But “accustomed” is not the same as apathetic.  I can gather up the remains and accomplish the disposition, but every time the fact of it leaves me bruised and somehow diminished.  

Did I mention that we hadn't wanted this chirping, fluttering little bundle of fuzz?  It's true of course – along with countless other pulses, heartbeats, voices and experiences that we didn't choose but came to change and enrich our lives unalterably for the better.  

And so for the privilege of sharing this brief but tender mercy we are grateful. 
We'll miss you.  

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Morning of Grateful Remembrance and Anticipation

The morning is still as this Memorial Day emerges.  The leaves hang as though in suspended animation.  The only sounds are birds happily and fully embracing the dawn.  Sam the rooster is intent on getting everyone in the township out of bed and into the day's remembrances.  A lone deer nibbles her way across the prairie.  The air is cool; the coffee hot.  These are the mornings for which decks are made.

We've been working hard these past several days.  There have been weeds to hoe (and there will assuredly be more), soil to turn and seeds to plant.  A few forgotten muscles have raised their sore voices to remind us that they are still alive and working.  Sleep comes easy at night.  But it is a satisfying soreness and a contented rest.  And there is more hard work in front of us.  In recent days we have been hardening off the greenhouse starts and we intend to begin transplanting them later today.  They have been thriving in their sheltered environment, but like teenagers needing to leave the house their growth is limited with roots restricted to that potted cube harbored in that plastic tray.  First, however, there is more soil to loosen and nudge into receptive beds; compost to spread; holes to dig.

But if it all sounds like work -- and in truth it feels like it to us from time to time -- we prefer to remind ourselves that it is really a deposit, an investment that will pay dividends in time, each time we sit down at the table and offer an appreciative word of thanks in acknowledgment of the blessing --

-- the blessing of eating what we've picked, dug, shelled, and gathered, but also the blessing of sharing in the alchemy of how it all comes to be...

...and the blessing of thinking about it all; considering it -- anticipating it all -- here in the cool stillness of the morning, nursing a mug of coffee, kept company by emerging lettuces, and serenaded by chirps and whistles and cockadoodledoos.  

It's not a bad way to start a day.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Taking Advantage of Perfection

We had been waiting for the perfect day.  In truth, what we needed was merely a functional one.  Rain has been such a constant feature of this developing spring that garden work has been difficult to advance.  We've had plenty of opportunity to wear the mud boots; not so much the tiller and the hoes.  It isn't that the sun has never made an appearance, just seldom enough sequentially to dry the ground.  Time was moving deeper into the season and I was growing restless, waiting. 

But as has been said about nausea, you can delay matters but eventually the moment is going to come. Sooner rather than later we would need to give up waiting. 

But yesterday functionality and near-perfection blessedly converged.  While Lori weeded among the thicket that had become the garlic beds, I readied planting spaces -- tilling, composting, broadforking.  And then last evening, after catching our breath, we planted.  

Sixteen rows of them.
Green beans.
Okra (3 varieties).
Onions (2 varieties).
Red kale.
Swiss chard.
Collard greens.
Fingerling potatoes.
Patty Pan squash.
Blackeyed peas.
Pinkeyed peas.
Christmas Lima beans.

There are, of course, more seeds still languishing in their packages -- the peas and cucumbers for which trellises will yet need to be installed, and flower seeds, the inevitable afterthoughts intended for miscellaneous patches around the farmstead.  Those, along with all the transplants shaking the bars of their greenhouse prison aching for a work-release by which they can breathe deeply and sink their roots into garden soil toward a new stage of productivity -- the tomatoes and peppers and cabbages and yet more onions.  And four more fruit trees were delivered yesterday.  But all that will require more stretches of sunny hours during which the remaining section of the garden can be prepared to receive new residents.  

But the morning started out with fresh showers -- a blessing for yesterday's newly ensconced seeds, but a challenge for fresh dirt work.  And there is more rain in the extended forecast.  The sun, though, has emerged with the prospect of more throughout the day.  Sufficient drying may yet occur.  We’ll see.  

In the meantime, I'll give thanks for yesterday's “perfect day” and, as with every other part of living in actual reality, divine creative strategies for accomplishing our goals amidst days a notch or two below perfection.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

A Find For Divinely Protected Fools

I could feel my Uncle Willis shaking his head in amazement and disappointment.
But not surprise.
Uncle Willis, the younger of my Dad's two older brothers, was an avid outdoor enthusiast, hunting anything legal that moved. That included alligators in South America when he worked there as a young geophysicist exploring for oil, and also renegade army officers in that same primitive environment deep in the bush who kidnapped one of his employees for ransom. He didn't seem to be afraid of anything, including the Secret Service that helicoptered down upon him one afternoon and ordered him spread-eagle for frisking against the aircraft when the Vice President happened to be hunting on the adjacent farm.
Hunting, in a more routine sense, included for my Uncle birds of various categories around the family farm in South Texas, and white tail deer. He went to great lengths and preparations to make sure conditions were inviting to his prey. He avidly bought his licenses, loaded his guns, set his early morning alarms, stalked through the woods, practiced his "calls", and climbed into his blinds. He was an enthusiastic sportsman, and a darn good shot.
I, meanwhile -- at least as far as he was concerned -- was something from outer-space. I hunted as a kid but more out of genetic obligation than visceral pleasure. And then, contrary to family genes, I gradually lost all interest.  Already Uncle Willis suspected that some mystery creature had substituted the true Diebel egg in the nest with one from a different planet. When Lori and I announced that we would be married on September 20, he was incredulous. Didn't we realize, he asked aloud, that September 20 was the opening day of dove season? He begrudgingly was willing to forego that signal date, just that once, and attend the wedding, but for the rest of our lives, he noted in no small measure of dismay and disbelief, our anniversary would conflict with this important rite of autumn. He indulged us, but we completely understood that he thought we were nuts.
Fast-forward 20 years, and just this week Lori's brother Steve was exploring our several northerly acres of thick woods, through the trees close to the creek. There he discovered a decaying deer that had died of indeterminate causes, with an impressive 10-point rack intact. Rescuing the antlers from the brush, he encouraged us to mount the horns for display.
Of course we know nothing of such things. Transporting the rack to a local taxidermist, he asked for the "tag."
We looked at each other blankly.
"A salvage tag," he clarified. "I can't touch it without a salvage tag from the DNR."
He might as well have been speaking Chinese. "I don't know what that means," I confessed.
"A salvage tag from the Department of Natural Resources to verify that you aren't poachers,” he clarified.
“Ah,” we responded. After exchanging blank looks, Lori noted that all the officer would have to do was ask us a few questions and it would be plainly obvious that we weren't anything, especially poachers.
And it is here, I noted, that a Director would cue my uncle’s disappointment. We might as well not know the alphabet and multiplication tables.
“You don't know what a DNR Salvage tag is?” I can hear him asking. And indeed, I would have to acknowledge that I don't. I'm not completely clueless, but among these topics I am largely so.
No worries. A couple of phone calls and a little patience later we are now the proud owners of a salvage tag from the DNR which has been sufficiently convinced that the antlers are entirely legal and legit -- the officer apparently convinced that we are completely incompetent of procuring ill-gotten gains. The windfall, they concluded, was simply dumb luck.
It's not a flattering assessment, I'll agree, but it is, nonetheless, an honest one. We don't know what we don't know, and so we ask ridiculous questions and watch and wait for pastoral, instructive answers. And yet with these few questions satisfied in ignorance, we gingerly accepted our salvage tag. The taxidermist is now sorting finishing options while the memory of Uncle Willis shakes his head and moves on to other things...
...like how are we possibly going to celebrate our 20th anniversary this fall on the opening day of dove season?  Perhaps with the ceremonial hanging of an impressive set of antlers salvaged from our property and legally prepared for display.  He will never understand us. But then he would relax with the assurance that God takes care of children and fools.
For our part, far too old for the former, we will contentedly and happily take our place among the latter.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Drenching of Well-Laid Plans

It was easy to get seduced.

After weeks of mild spring weather during which winter seemed far behind, we itched to get outside. The occasional showers more beckoned than interrupted; the growing season was drawing near.  Greenhouse seeding and tending have been underway since March, and though some of the results have disappointed, there is plenty of green bursting from plenty of trays.  The tomato plants are ready for transplanting into larger containers, and a few early season crops I giddily sowed in the garden ground.  In that annual definitive statement of seasonal progress I removed the snow chains from the tractor along with the snow blower attachment, and latched the mower deck in its place before taking an inaugural swipe through the already tall grass.  It was thoroughly spring, and before the garden claimed our attentions we set to work creating a new growing space anchored by more fruit trees and augmented with perennial vegetables and herbs.

I'll admit it:  we were feeling a little smug.  To be sure, there is major prep work to be done in the garden, firing up the new walk-behind tractor to redevelop the beds in those areas not currently occupied by garlic and wheat.  But everything was falling neatly into place and according to plan -- the seedlings neatly scheduled, the planting nonchalantly calendered.  Six seasons into this learning proposition we rather felt like we knew what we were doing.

And then the temperatures began to fall -- into the 30's and 40's through the breadth of this week -- and the rains returned in earnest-- 2.5" in the last 3 days alone.  The garden is a puddle, the chicken yard is a giant mud pie, the tractor sits idle in the barn, and the seed potatoes are sprouting in their bags.  The rain barrels are happily filled, but the rest of the gardening is at a standstill until...who knows when?

This, after everything had been so carefully staged.

We should know by now that we aren't in charge, and that no two years are the same.  Learning is, indeed, cumulative, but while last year's lessons will no doubt some day be applicable, this year will occasion its own unique education.  We have not lived this year before -- in the garden, or otherwise. 

And so we will pay attention, experiment, adapt, and learn.  Eventually we will plow and transplant and sow and tend, and with any luck at all, eventually harvest...

...something.  Maybe more, maybe less than in years before.  But it will all be in its own time, and in its own way.  And in the meantime, in the midst of all this mud, we will more honestly clothe ourselves in the reality of humility rather than the illusion of mastery.

And patiently accomplish what we can indoors...

...until another day.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Kansas City Progress, Oklahoma Naivete, and Iowa Short-Sightedness

“Everything's up to date in Kansas City,” marveled cowboy Will Parker in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, set in 1906 and debuting on Broadway in 1943.

“They gone about as fer as they can go
They went an' built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a buildin' orta grow.”

My guess is that audiences found that prediction as comically nonsensical in 1943 as we do today.  With two skyscrapers planned for downtown Des Moines that rise 30 stories and more, a 7-story “skyscraper” sounds more like a bungalow.  Never mind that the tallest building in the country -- the 104-story One World Trade Center in New York -- is only the 6th tallest in the world.  

That’s the problem with the present tense, of course:  we don’t know what we don’t know.  In 1906 a 7-story building really sounded like something.  We make judgments and assumptions based on wisdom accumulated to that point – what else, after all, do we have? – but only fools presume that that’s all there is. 

I found myself humming that classic piece of musical naiveté while reading the newspaper’s reporting on the Iowa State Legislature’s budget recommendation that would effectively eliminate the 30-year old Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture housed at Iowa State University.  Named after Iowa native Aldo Leopold, an internationally revered conservationist, ecologist, and educator who championed the need for development of a “land ethic”, the Center’s mission has been “to identify and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources as well as reducing negative environmental and social impacts.”  In its three decades of work, the Center has sponsored research, trials, educational efforts, and worked with farmers to enrich both their work and the land they cultivate. Much of the conservation progress in Iowa that has been realized in recent years can be traced to the Center's research and educational efforts -- work that, by the Center's own assessment, is still in its infancy.

In announcing the budget proposal, however, Rep. Cecil Dolecheck (Mt. Ayr) mused that  “…the center’s mission of researching methods of sustainable agriculture appears to have been achieved.” 

Yep, they gone about as fer as they can go.

“Research on sustainable agriculture,” Dolecheck went on to observe, “can continue at ISU, but it can be done through the College of Agriculture.” (Des Moines Register, April 12, 2017)

Given that land grant institutions like Iowa State have largely become wholly owned subsidiaries of “big ag”, focused more centrally on corporate profitability than soil sustainability, that option offers thin encouragement.  Meanwhile, the land continues to erode, the soil continues to deteriorate, waterways are increasingly unswimmable and toxic to wildlife, and farmers, for all their available tools and technologies, earn less and less for their labors while spending more and more for the privilege. 

But apparently research on sustainability has gone about as far as it can go.  Perhaps next the Legislature will impose a 7-story cap on new building construction because everybody knows that’s “About as high as a buildin' orta grow.”

One thing is almost certainly true in this sad saga of environmental ignorance and disregard.  As we accelerate our disinterest in matters of sustainability, the Leopold Center’s mission toward that end will indeed grow obsolete.  “Sustainability” will no longer be the relevant need.

“Regenerativity” will, of necessity, have urgently taken its place.